The Author-ization of Information
by Paul Amore
Boyle, James. Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996.

James Boyle''s central thesis in Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society is that the romantic notion of the author as a solitary individual who creates something "original" and "transformative" drives much of intellectual property law. Boyle maintains that while this basis for intellectual property laws largely works, the current uncritical, even dogmatic, acceptance of the idea of an originary author can tend obscure the problems this system may create. As we move increasingly into an "Information Age," Boyle sees a pressing need to interrogate the language of entitlement built upon the romantic notion of authorship in order to understand how we mediate the "ownership" of information.

The crux of Shamans, Software, and Spleens is a collection of "case studies" of the romantic vision of authorship in action. Boyle considers recent intellectual property disputes concerning blackmail, insider trading, human DNA (from spleens), and software. He comes to the conclusion that in all of these cases, the rhetoric of author as solitary creator is what ultimately provided the justification for a decision in these disputes. The problems associated with this pervasive influence of the romantic author vision in intellectual property disputes are numerous, according to Boyle. In a system based unequivocally on the romantic vision of authorship, Boyle feels that the public domain is threatened, since as more of the "raw materials" for creation are copyrighted or patented, the less innovation there is likely to be. Boyle also worries that reliance on the vision of romantic author will create monopolies on information. This paradigm of authorship may also provide a kind of justification for companies that sweep into an underdeveloped country and patent resources before the indigenous peoples have a chance to develop their own industry. Boyle can even conceive of a future in which romantic authorship becomes a justification for a kind of "slavery" of human-created life forms (be they animal hybrids or thinking computers), since creators will be able to argue that the life forms are "original" creations.

To avoid this kind of future, Boyle proposes a set of what he calls "moderate, reformist suggestions" as ways to deal with the encroachment of the single-author vision of information, suggestions that take their cue from The Bellagio Declaration (nicely included in an appendix). One of Boyle's main concerns is that the terms of "fair use" be expanded to make sure that journalists and teachers are not too restricted in their use of information. To this end he proposes a copyright agreement that would limit an author’s ownership of a work for twenty years. He also maintains that software should not be subject to copyright or patent law since it may tend to concentrate power over the market in the hands of just a few companies (think Microsoft). Perhaps Boyle'’s most salient suggestion is that the General Accounting Office should consider each application for copyright or patent and decide whether these applications would discourage future innovations (171-172).

These suggestions are indeed "moderate," seeking to find some middle ground between the blind application of the romantic author vision and the total abolition of such a basis for intellectual property. One wonders though whether these proposals are just a temporary salve; won’t those who have a financial interest in copyrights and patents find plenty of other ways to ensure control of information? And if they do not, who is to say that these new restrictions on copyright and patents might not discourage companies from further development in the face of relatively short-term gains, the very thing that Boyle fears current intellectual property laws do? Boyle is right when he says that the author as basis for intellectual property laws is a pervasive system, but this book would have been even more interesting and cogent had Boyle considered some paradigm other than the romantic author on which to base a system of intellectual property.

This book’s intended audience is definitely not students and teachers of rhetoric and composition. Boyle does not devote any space to a discussion of the effects the "author-centered regime" might have on composition classes, nor does he consider how his proposed "solutions" might affect the way writing is taught and thought about in the Academy. One might say that, indeed, Boyle has no interest in entering a dialogue with anyone in the Academy other than those who study law and economics. Many of the terms and concepts he uses in his analyses (e.g. "baseline error") are not only foreign to most outside the disciplines of law and economics, but Boyle makes little effort to explain the disciplinary "jargon" he employs. In his Preface, Boyle even makes it clear that there is a whole group of academics with whom he does not wish to identify -- Postmodernists. When discussing the contribution of postmodern academics to debates about authorship, Boyle says:

... what one finds ... are rather uniformed sweeping statements about American popular culture made by (French) academics whose main source of information seems to be each other’s books; there is also an occasional snippet from the Pay TV in the airport hotel or the 1950 B movies that are badly dubbed back home on TeleFrance 1. (xvi)
While some may believe there is some validity to these statements (many postmodern academics who debate theories of authorship such as Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard are French), Boyle’s characterization is unfair and underestimates the contribution of postmodern thinkers to discussions of authorship. Works such as Barthes’ "The Death of the Author" and Foucault’s "What is an Author" remain highly influential in the discourse of authorship (judging by the number of times works like these are cited in current scholarship), particularly for the ways in which they envision the repercussions and current state of authorship theory. These postmodern thinkers have also noted that much of the discourse of creation and property is based on the Romantic ideal of the author, and have proposed different paradigms of authorship. It is a shame that Boyle felt he could not enter into "dialogue" with these thinkers, a position that has left quite a void in his book.

This being said, Boyle’s book still remains valuable for its analysis of rhetoric "at work" and the implications that the vanguard reader might draw for teaching composition classes. Boyle explains that his methodology in the book is to create a social constructionist theory of intellectual property. When he says, " ... law should be seen as a complex interpretive activity, a practice of encoding and decoding social meaning . . .," he is clearly in the domain of rhetoric (14). That the romantic vision of authorship functions as a powerful rhetorical tool for the way we talk about textual production and ownership may seem like an obvious conclusion, but Boyle’s analyses of blackmail, insider trading, software, and spleens all explicate specific ways in which the romantic author vision affects the discourse of information. Though Boyle may not like the connection, one is reminded of Foucault’s (postmodern!) analyses in Discipline and Punish or Madness and Civilization, in which Foucault demonstrates how rhetoric is a tool for shaping reality, constraining the way we se e it. Likewise, Boyle effectively demonstrates that our conceptions of a solitary, genius creator have shaped the way in which we conceive of information (e.g. it can be owned) and the way we adjudicate disputes involving information.

Boyle certainly raises some issues which the discipline would do well to consider. If one of the goals of composition is to prepare students to effectively communicate with their fellow citizens in writing, then it is vital that students understand our system of intellectual property and its effects on how they can communicate. Students need to understand what kinds of writing qualify for intellectual property consideration and how they may or may not utilize copyrighted text in their own writing, at least this is the "party line" anyway. Through instruction in citation and bibliography, composition instructors overtly and covertly teach students to value the current system of intellectual property as if it were something "sacred," something students should fear to trespass. In some ways, our practices of citation encourage students to think of themselves as non-writers, as other than the kind of solitary genius that produces "true" authorship.1 The kind of uncritical acceptance of the romantic author vision that Boyle sees in intellectual property law is perhaps prevalent in "composition law." What if a student collaborates with another student to produce a text? Does that not qualify as "authorship" because there is not a single creator? To take the example even further, what if those same two students took their collaboratively produced text to a writing center to get help with revision? Are these students now "non-writers"? Does citation encourage students to think of themselves as derivative, and in this way discourage them from creating future works?

These are difficult questions for composition instructors to answer, but just as Boyle works toward revising intellectual property law to accommodate more diverse forms of creation, production, and distribution, composition instructors must find ways to mediate the influence of the romantic author vision so students can experiment with a wide variety of textual creation and production techniques, instead of having to lock themselves in their garrets to produce that "original" text. Though some in the discipline of Rhetoric and Composition may find the language and the concepts of Boyle's text somewhat esoteric and foreign, his book nonetheless serves as good example of the kind of rhetorical and social investigation into authorship that composition and rhetoric instructors are only beginning to do. As this "Age" continues, Boyle'’s text is one bit of "Information" that will remain valuable.

1 The idea and phrasing are Rebecca Moore Howard's.